Jewish White House staffers get emotional during briefing on response to Israel’s war


WASHINGTON ((JEWISH REVIEW)) — On paper, the agenda must have seemed dry, an accounting of flights out of Israel, of military equipment going into Israel and of call centers.

But amid the niceties that routinely mark the opening of such meetings, Shelley Greenspan, the White House liaison to the Jewish community, couldn’t hold back on Tuesday. She looked at each of the officials flanking her on the desk in the White House’s West Wing: Jon Finer, the deputy national security advisor, on her left and Liz Sherwood-Randall, President Joe Biden’s homeland security advisor, on her right. All three are Jewish.

“I give a shoutout to my colleagues here at the White House who are doing everything imaginable to protect Americans at the direction of the president and to make sure that conflict really just subsides,” Greenspan said, choking back tears. “And truly, thank you, guys, for checking in on me the other day. Thank you for not getting any sleep and doing everything you can, Jon.”

Finer cast his eyes down. Sherwood-Randall rubbed Greenspan’s back.

It was a snapshot of how Jewish White House staffers are grappling with how the worst attack on civilians in Israel’s history is both a political crisis and, for them and all Jews, a personal tragedy. On Saturday morning, Hamas terrorists crossed into Israel from the Gaza Strip by land, se and air, killing over 1,200 people.

“We see you and stand with you,” Finer said. “Many of us — look at the three of us up here — are of this community. And it meant a lot to us to be here and to be able to speak with you today.”

The briefing took place just after Biden delivered one of the most impassioned speeches of his career, describing the attacks as a “pure, unadulterated evil.” Biden was flanked by Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who is Jewish, and Vice President Kamala Harris, whose husband, Doug Emhoff, is Jewish.

The White House is staging an all-out engagement with the Jewish community. The online briefing Tuesday afternoon was to be followed by an in-person roundtable with Jewish leaders on Wednesday evening, which Biden will address. On Thursday, FBI Director Christopher Wray will address an online briefing by the Secure Community Network, the consultancy for the national Jewish community.

Finer went over the details of an emergency lift of military equipment to Israel. “The first shipment of military aid including munitions began moving yesterday,” he said. “We believe it is arriving today. And there will be more to come.”

In fact, the shipment arrived while the call was still on. “We are grateful for the U.S. backing and assistance to the IDF, and to the State of Israel in general, during this challenging period,” the Israeli army said just a few minutes after Finer spoke. “Our common enemies know that the cooperation between our militaries is stronger than ever, and is a key part in ensuring regional security and stability.”

Sherwood-Randall said there was no immediate domestic threat. “At this time none of our intelligence agencies have any specific intelligence indicating that there is a threat to the United States stemming from the Hamas terrorist attacks in Israel,” she said. “But we remain vigilant because we know that foreign terrorist organizations and their supporters are committed to attacking the United States.”

She said Jewish communities would get up-to-date information on what should be done in case of an emergency. “We will provide you with resource guides that contains specific information on trainings, websites and phone numbers that are available to you from the federal government,” she said.

She also went over plans to add flights out of Israel for Americans who want to leave.

“We know that there are a lot of Americans who’ve traveled to Israel around the High Holy Days and may have stayed through into the Sukkot period, and by themselves not able to go home on the flights that they had previously scheduled because most American carriers have stopped flying in and out of Israel,” Sherwood Randall said.

“The leadership of the State Department and the Department of Transportation has been working with American airline carriers and asked them to increase the number of flights available leaving from Israel,” she said.

A Jewish rescue group, Tzedek Association, is facilitating the effort by setting up an online form for Americans wanting to leave Israel.